Thursday, October 29, 2009

Breast cancer basics

Yet another day I'm sitting in the apartment feeling like someone's beat me up. The nose isn't running, and I'm not sneezing as much. But it's all in my throat now. I've got very little voice, and the coughing fits are horrendous. They're bad enough that it's triggered a migraine. So today I have the great accomplishments of taking a shower, emailing my dad, and getting a Catalan-cuisine lunch: toast w/ 5 local cheeses and seasoned garbanzo beans w/ tomatoes, onion, and hard-boiled egg.

But while I sit here waiting for my migraine meds to kick in so I can bend over without passing out, and listen to a commentary track from LOTR, I find myself crying. Between the migraine, the frustration at having only 2 decent archive days in 8 work days, and concern for Mom and Dad, it's a hard afternoon. So to try to at least write something useful, here's another installment of cancer awareness.

Breast Cancer Basics, Part 1 (thanks to info from the American Cancer Society

1. What is breast cancer?
--A malignant tumor (cells gone wild) that grows in the breast, typically either in the lobules (glands that produce milk) or ducts (that carry milk to nipple). In men, breast cancer often occurs in the small number of ducts they have, since they have very, very few lobules.

2. Two Starting Points
--Breast cancer most often is a carcinoma: it begins in the lining layers of the breast, rather than in connective tissues (like muscles, fatty tissue, or blood vessels), which would be called sarcoma. Since both ducts and lobules are glandular tissues, breast cancer is usually considered an adenocarcinoma - cancer that starts in the glandular tissue.

3. Types of Breast Cancer
--There are multiple types of breast cancer. The least invasive kinds are in situ - either Ductal Carcinoma in Situ (DCIS) or Lobular Carcinoma in Situ (LCIS). In these, the cancer has not spread beyond the tissue of either the duct or the lobules. Some doctors see LCIS as pre-cancerous condition rather than a true cancer.
--About 80% of invasive (spreading) cancers in both males and females are Invasive Ductal Carcinoma (IDC). Cancer starts in the ducts and spreads to the surrounding breast tissue. Invasive Lobule Carcinoma (ILC) is much less common, accounting for only 2% of male breast cancer and 10% for women.
--About 1-3% of breast cancer is Inflammatory Breast Cancer. There is no tumor, but the breasts become red, swollen, warm, and the skin becomes itchy, hard, tender, or thick and pitted.

4. How Common is Breast Cancer?
--Breast cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death for American women, behind only lung cancer.
--The American Cancer Society predicts that around 192,000 women and around 1,900 men will have been diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009.
--The ACS also predicts that around 40,000 women and 400 men will die of breast cancer this year.

5. What are the Risk Factors for Breast Cancer for Women?
--Female Gender - breast cancer is ~100 times more common in women than men
--Aging - women over the age 55 are at higher risk
--Genetics - researchers believe women who have mutations of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes have up to an 80% chance of developing breast cancer
--Family or personal history of cancer - Women with a close family member (sister, mother, daughter) with breast cancer double their risk of developing breast cancer.
--Race - While caucasian women are more likely to get breast cancer, African American women are more likely to die of it.
--Dense breast tissue
--Some Benign breast changes
--Early menstruation or late menopause - the greater the amount of estrogen, the greater the risk
--Earlier breast radiation
--Not having children or having them after age 30 - again, they think that perhaps having more menstrual cycles means more estrogen, which means a greater risk.
--Use of HRT (hormone replacement therapy - yet again, more estrogen
--Alcohol use - women who regularly have 2-5 drinks per day have 1.5 times greater risk
--Being obese, overweight, or not exercising

6. What are the Risk Factors for Men?
--Family history
--Genetic changes - same genes as for women - BRCA1 and BRCA2
--Klinefeler Disease - congenital disorder where men have multiple X chromosomes, and thus more estrogen
--Radiation exposure on the chest
--Heavy alcohol use
--Liver Disease - yet again, leads to hormonal fluctuation and higher estrogen levels
--Estrogen treatments

7. What can I do to lower my risk?
--Maintain a healthy weight
--Limit your alcohol intake
--Exercise regularly
--If you are at a higher risk due to some of the above factors, do regular self-exams and get regular exams from your doctor.
--There are other, more extensive preventive measures, but they are fairly drastic: preventive "chemoprevention," preventive mastectomies, preventive hysterectomy

More will probably follow. I feel like all I can do is try to share awareness and pray Mom becomes one of the miracle survival stories.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

It's never what it seems

I feel bad - I haven't updated this site. I've updated in a number of other places, but not here. I'm so sorry about that.

Here's the short story:
On Oct 12 I left for Europe, planning to spend 6 days in London, Lille (France), and Paris with two grad school friends. I had slightly unpleasant flights to London after a bit of a fiasco with KLM (thank you, Delta, for saving my butt and my luggage) and spent 2.5 days in London with a coworker from my office, M. Saw some cool things, like Phantom of the Opera, and got lots of great pictures.

On the 16th, we took a train from London to Lille, France (near the Belgian-French border) to meet up with my very, very good friend, K. He was presenting his research at a big international conference, and that was the last day. So M and I wandered around until he was done, then we met with him and one of his coworkers for dinner. The next day, K, M, and I took the train to Paris for the weekend. Together, we went to: the Rodin Museum, Sacre Coeur church, the Louvre, Notre Dame Cathedral, and the Arc de Triomphe. We also took a river tour on the Seine. And K and I got to see the Eiffel tower lit up at night from the hilly region of Montmartre as we were leaving Sacre Coeur.

On Monday morning, we all left - K for the US, M back to England (where she's doing research), and me for Spain. Flights were fine, my hostel was fine, I met my future roommate and we got along great. Then I was sick all night, and for the next two days. Fever spiked, sick to my stomach, etc. So I spent my first full day in the hostel common room waiting for E, my roommate, to get off work so I could move in, and my second day in bed in the apartment. Today was supposed to be my first day out, but my body rebelled again and left me in excruciating pain for about 4 hours. So the cats and I bonded.

Now for the important thing:
In Lille, I got a call from my parents with Mom's diagnosis. To my great and utter surprise, it is not lymphoma or multiple myeloma (which I had expected after reading up on the two of them). My mom doesn't have a blood cancer at all.

She has Stage IV, metastatic breast cancer.

I was not prepared for that.

Thankfully, K stayed up and refused to go to bed (though he was utterly fatigued) until I had gotten the call, so he held me while I sobbed... and hyperventilated... and sobbed some more.

Mom has started treatment already. She immediately began hormone therapy - so I'm guessing that means her cancer has estrogen or progesterone receptors - and today was her first round of radiation. She'll have 10 days of intense radiation, and then they'll see where they are. They hope the radiation will shrink some of the tumors in her back and give her some relief from the constant, excruciating pain she's in 24/7. But the radiologist wasn't very hopeful....

I thought I was prepared, but I wasn't. So here we are. Mom and Dad are dealing with all of this. And I'm 5,000+ miles away, supposed to be caring about what some no-name Spaniards did almost 100 years ago. I have no motivation right now. All I want to do is go home (to my parents, that is, not back to my desert, which I refer to as home).

So there we are. My roommate is very nice, her cats have already adopted me - they spent most of the day getting comfort from me during a huge rain storm - and I have seen all of about 6 blocks of Barcelona so far. And I could care less. All I want is to go be with Mom. It's going to be a very, very long 8 weeks.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Cancer awareness

I have such a great urge to *do* something, to volunteer, to be an advocate, anything. And I don't know what I can do, since I'm leaving in less than 3 days. So here's me being a tiny bit of an educator:

According to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society:
* Every 4 minutes, someone in the US is diagnosed with a blood cancer: leukemia, lymphoma, or myeloma.
* That adds up to an estimated 139,860 new diagnoses in 2009. My mom's one of those.
* An estimated 53,240 blood cancer survivors will lose their fights this year. That's around 146 per day.
* Stem cell treatment is a common tool for these patients to try to spark the creation of new blood cells after chemotherapy.

* An estimated 601,180 people in the US are living with lymphoma - cancer of the lymphocytes - either Hodgkin or non-Hodgkin's.
* Hodgkin lymphoma is considered one of the most treatable and "curable" of all blood cancers - with 5-year survival rates currently at around 92%.
* Hodgkin lymphoma is most common in young adults in the 20s and 30s.
* Non-Hodgkin lymphoma is actually a catch-all term for approximately 20 different kinds of lymphoma.
* Lymphoma symptoms include the swelling of a lymph node, but most other symptoms are common to many other, minor illnesses (like fever, weight loss, & weakness) and it can be difficult to realize that something is truly wrong.

* Myeloma is the cancer of plasma cells, and most often leads to bone deterioration.
* Myeloma is difficult to "cure," with 5-year survival rates only just recently moving up to a high of between 37-40%.
* For reasons researchers don't understand, myeloma is much more common in the African American community than any other. Males near or over age 70 have the highest incidence rates.
* Myeloma begins with damage to the DNA of one lymphocyte cell destined to create plasma. Doctors do not know what the potential causes are.
* Myeloma cells secrete a substance that triggers other cells to dissolve bone and triggers others to grow in its place.
* Myeloma patients often present with no symptoms, but bone pain is usually the first sign of any problem. [Definitely true for my mother.]

And since October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, some facts courtesy of the Susan G. Komen Foundation:
* Both men and women can get breast cancer. It is not a women's disease alone.
* In women, 85% of breast cancers begin in mammary ducts.
* The primary symptoms of breast cancer are:
--- A lump, hard knot or thickening
--- Swelling, warmth, redness or darkening
--- Change in breast size or shape
--- Dimpling or puckering of the skin
--- Itchy, scaly sore or rash on the nipple
--- Pulling in of your nipple or other parts of the breast
--- Nipple discharge that starts suddenly
--- New pain in one spot
* This year, an estimated 192,370 women and 1,910 men will have received a diagnosis of invasive breast cancer.
* This year, an estimated 40,170 women and 440 men will lose their battles with breast cancer.

Know your body. Do self-exams. Know when your body changes. Get tested. Get treated.

And support cancer research wherever possible.


Friday, October 2, 2009

Urgent prayer

My mom was just told that she has cancer in her back. Please be in prayer for her and my dad. I leave the country in a week. We're in shock...